Despite reported threats from Islamic militants, the court in the city of Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab province, declared Shahid Masih, 18, "totally innocent." The court also acquitted Masih’s co-defendant, teenager Muhammad Ghaffar, who is Muslim.
Judge Muhammad Abdul Sattar said he made the decision after two key prosecution witnesses changed their original testimonies. Under oath, Mohammad Younis and Khalid Mehmood dropped claims that Ghaffar told them he had seen Masih tear pages from a tafseer, a book explaining Quranic verses. Following the ruling the judge and witnesses soon left the court building, where about a mob of angry Muslims gathered, witnesses said.
The two boys were reported by Dr. Arshad Masood who said they tore pages from the Quran he kept in his clinic in Madina Town district of Faisalabad for study at night time. Under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation, anyone "desecrating" Prophet Muhammad or the Quran, seen as a holy book by Muslims, can be sentenced to prison or even death. Over 20 people involved in blasphemy cases have been killed in Pakistan since the laws were instituted in 1986, according to human rights observers.
In statements monitored by BosNewsLife, family members and friends always denied that Masih and Ghaffar were involved in desecrating the Quran. They said the two teenagers sometimes used drugs and were "falsely accused of blasphemy to punish them more severely" for allegedly stealing some medicines from the clinic on September 10, 2006.
STILL IN HIDING
Despite Monday’s ruling acquitting him of the blasphemy charges, Masih is still in hiding at an unknown location amid fears of renewed violence against him. He has been living separately from family members and his 12 siblings since he was released on bail in January, family members and his defense team said.
Muslim militants first began attacking Masih’s home in September when news of the alleged desecration of the Quran spread across the neighborhood. Masih was soon arrested by police and brought to a nearby jail where he was allegedly beaten by at least one official. Following that incident his mother’s health deteriorated and she died in March this year, said Catholic lawyer Khalil Tahir, chairman of Adal Trust, a Non Governmental Organization in Faisalabad.
He told reporters he had mixed feelings about Monday’s verdict. "Although Masih has been proved innocent, those responsible for his and his family’s mental torture and above all for the death of his poor mother, are still at large," the lawyer said in a statement distributed by AsiaNews agency.
CATHOLIC BELIEVERS PROSECUTED
In addition, he remains concerned about James Masih, 70, and Buta Masih,65, two Catholic men from Faisalabad who were accused of burning pages of the Quran last year. Both were sentenced to ten years imprisonment each in November 2006. Tahir said he has taken up their case and, “We are waiting for the date of appeal which is going to be fixed in Lahore High court soon." However he and other officials of his organizations said that all they could do in the meantime was to "pray" for a just solution.
News of the upcoming trial comes amid reports of new violence against Christians. On Saturday, September 15, a bomb reportedly rocked a Christian elementary school in the North West Frontier Province, injuring no one but badly damaging the building. Earlier last week a Catholic-run high school in Sangota closed down after it received a letter threatening a suicide attack if its students did not withdraw and enroll in Islamic schools, news reports said.
Christians comprise less than three percent of Pakistan’s mainly Muslim population of about 165 million people, according to estimates by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (With reporting from Pakistan and BosNewsLife Research).